If magic, as I wrote earlier this week, can be defined as the manipulation of elements, then it would seem to follow that not-magic could be defined as letting the elements manipulate you.


L isn’t as sure of this as I am.

“Isn’t that Zen?” he asked.

“No, it’s not Zen,” I said. “Also I don’t know enough about Zen. But accepting what is around you is different from letting it affect you in a negative way.”

What I’m trying to get at is this idea that not-magic is the assessment of a situation, the understanding that it could lead to a negative outcome, and the decision to let that negative outcome happen even though you could take positive action to prevent it.

(This is different, btw, than watching someone else’s actions lead them towards a negative outcome and not doing the extra work required to prevent that outcome from happening. You can do that work — and we often do that work for the people we love, especially when they are still learning how to be people — but there’s also a time and place for letting natural consequences transpire.)

Essentially I’m arguing that, in any given situation — and especially in a situation that is currently making you feel bad — you have three options:

  • To make choices that you hope will lead to positive outcomes (to improve, transform, create)
  • To do nothing (and accept that you’re going to feel bad, but that’s okay)
  • To make choices that you suspect might lead to negative outcomes (but hey, you’re already feeling bad, it’s the feeling-bad’s fault, that’s why you picked that fight or indulged in that self-destructive behavior)

One of these options leads towards magic.

The other leads away from it.

And the third — well, here’s where it gets interesting.

You might remember, if you read this blog on a regular basis, that Tara K. Shepersky recently wrote about positive action, negative action, and neutral (non)action in her guest post on Virtues and the Creative Life.

She discovered that neutral trends towards negative:

[My husband and I] got into a protracted discussion once, in which we argued each other into an understanding that’s become a tenet of my daily life: there is no such thing as True Neutral. Neutral trends Evil. 

In other words: doing nothing is almost as wrong as doing something you know is wrong.

Right away we run into two big problems: Your Choices Limit Your Choices vs. Everything Is Real (to quote two of my own blog posts, go read them).

On the one hand, you might only have enough time/energy/space in your life to prioritize certain actions — which means you might have to accept “doing nothing” in certain situations, even if you actively want to change those situations.

On the other hand, well… everything is real. Everything in your life affects you (and the people around you) for better or for worse, so why not try to make it better and not worse?

Tara identified three virtues (patience, kindness, and courage) that she is currently using to help her both prioritize and guide her creativity and her choices:

I’ve found that having specific virtues to navigate by gives my art a better chance of spotting neutrality, interrogating its intentions, and bending it toward good.

In my case, I feel like I’m starting to pare everything down to a binary:

Is this magic?

Or is this not-magic?

And, as Tara noted, neutral isn’t really an option.

Either you’re actively trying to solve the problem in front of you or you’re not, and you know, when you start, whether you’re trying to solve the problem.

More on this next week (tomorrow is, of course, Thoughts From My Office), but I’ll give you a hint of what to expect:

Problem-solving is the process of going from guessing to knowing.

Is that statement true? I may have to write a few thousand words before I figure it out — so we’ll start on Monday. ❤️

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